Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A wild week of sports - Illini Style!

The crossover season in sports is heaven to the sports fan of any age. At the University of Illinois, that time has come, and if you are any kind of a sports fan that follows the Illini, then last weekend was your Mecca. Starting off with earlier in the week, fall signing day for both basketball teams and the volleyball teams arrived, and Bruce Weber and Jolette Law both made quite a splash with announcing their 2009 classes. On the men's side, four players were signed, and the talent level of these guys may be just what the Illini need to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand, D. J. Richardson, and Tyler Griffey are coming into a program at just the right time. Beset by defections and graduation, Weber and the Illini need some positive reinforcement to take place within the program. Paul, a 6'3 guard from Warren High School in Gurnee, can move up and down the court much like Richardson, also a 6'3 guard from the basketball factory of Peoria, Illinois. However, Richardson is away at prep school in Henderson, Nevada this season to concentrate on academics before enrolling at Illinois. Bertrand, a 6'5 guard from Sterling, is the reigning Class 3A slam dunk champion in the state, and may be versatile at either the 2 or the 3 position. Griffey, the lone out-of-stater from Wildwood, Missouri, is a 6'9 forward that has had the Illini on his radar for several years. His high school coach also coached former Illini Robert Archibald, giving instant credibility to the program. On the court, the Illini opened up the season with a pair of wins, defeating Eastern Washington 66-50 and Texas A & M - Corpus Christi 72-53, both at the Assembly Hall. In the win over TAMCC, sophomore Mike Davis showed some potential, recording a double double, scoring 20 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in the win. Things get a bit tougher for Weber and his young team when they travel to Nashville, Tennessee for their first road game on Thursday night against Vanderbilt (7:00 pm CT, Fox Sports Midwest). The Commodores are coached by Kevin Stallings, who is a close and personal friend of Weber's from their days at Purdue.
Illinois women's basketball coach Jolette Law was also busy on signing day, inking six players to letters of intent. Those players are as follows: Adrienne GodBold (Marshall HS, Chicago, Ill.), Brianna Jones (Central Catholic HS, Toledo, Ohio), Kersten Magrum (Lincoln-Way East HS, Frankfort, Ill.), Amber Moore (Country Day HS, Detroit, Mich.), Karisma Penn (Shaker Heights HS, Shaker Heights, Ohio) and Destiny Williams (Benton Harbor HS, Benton Harbor, Mich). This class has been ranked #2 nationally, meaning that Law is trying to make good on her promise to put Illinois women's basketball on the national map and bring a championship to Champaign. The Illini women have also begun their season, and so far, things are looking pretty good. A win last Friday against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne 64-44, and a home win against Eastern Illinois 49-45 last Sunday ahead of the men's game, is just the way Law wanted to start things out. With only 9 scholarship players, minutes are up for grabs and a total team effort needs to occur each night out for continued success. The Illini will battle Missouri at the Assembly Hall on Wednesday night (8:30 pm CT, Big Ten Network) to try and keep up the favorable start to the new season.
It has come down to this for Ron Zook and his Illini football team. Win and become bowl eligible, or lose and watch other teams battle in bowls for the upcoming holiday season. The Illini couldn't get it done last Saturday, falling to Ohio State 30-20 for Senior Day at Memorial Stadium. This has not been the season that these seniors envisioned at the start of the season. Fresh off a Rose Bowl appearance, the Illini wanted to improve on their 8-4 record and possibly play another meaningful bowl game. Instead, the Illini find themselves literally against the wall, needing a win against Northwestern (2:30 pm CT, Big Ten Network) on Saturday to get that all-important sixth win that will make them bowl eligible. Now, getting a win on Saturday doesn't mean that the Illini will get a bowl bid. Based on attendance figures, the Illini would be a better choice than some 7-5 teams, such as, ironically, Northwestern. But, how do you choose a 6-6 team (assuming Illinois wins) over a 7-5 team? Not an easy task at all. Northwestern will be up for this game, as they always are when facing their in-state rival. The main knock on Zook as of late has been his coaching ability in key situations. The removal of Juice Williams against the Buckeyes was more or less just a wake-up call, and you will see #7 behind center when the Illini take the field against the Wildcats on Saturday. When Zook was at Florida, he was known as a great recruiter, but not a good game coach. Similar patterns are beginning to develop during his tenure at Illinois as well. Zook continues to bring in top level players, but with as much talent that is on this team now, you would think that consecutive winning seasons would be in order. This has caused concern that some of the recruits that have given soft verbals may be wanting to reconsider and re-open their options. Failure to secure these prospective recruits could signal an alarming message to the program. Then again, these players could see this as a positive in knowing that the team needs help and they could step right in and play immediately. Losing Brit Miller, Ryan McDonald, Xavier Fulton and David Lindquist will no doubt hurt, and rumors are abound that junior cornerback Vontae Davis is going to skip his senior year to enter the NFL draft. However this plays out, the Illini need this win on Saturday to restore some credibility to the program because it has been awhile, a long while, since Illinois made consecutive bowl appearances.
Janet Rayfield's Illini women's soccer team has been moving through the NCAA Tournament this past week, and have advanced to the round of 16, putting them in some pretty select company. The Illini will travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina on Saturday to face the North Carolina Tar Heels, who have been the face of success in collegiate soccer over the past two decades. Rayfield is no stranger to the Tar Heels, having played there and helped them to their first national title back in 1982. This is the third appearance in the Sweet 16 for the Illini in the last five years, all in the Rayfield tenure. Tall order may it be, the fact remains that the Illini are poised to keep their season going, no matter what it takes.
Finally, volleyball was also in action this past week, and like the basketball teams, they signed some more talent as well for 2009. 6-1 outside hitter Jessica Jendryk (Wheaton, Ill./Benet Academy) , 6-3 middle blocker Erin Johnson (Crystal Lake, Ill./Crystal Lake South) , and 5-9 setter Jackie Wolfe (Wheaton, Ill./Wheaton-Warrenville South H.S.) will join Don Hardin's squad next year, and will add to some pretty stellar talent already in place. On the court, the Illini dropped a match to top-ranked Penn State last Friday night, and came back with wins over Indiana at Huff Hall, and Purdue on the road. In the match against the Nittany Lions, Penn State won in three games, and what is more impressive is that they have not lost a single game this season. The Illini will wrap up their regular season this weekend when they host Michigan State for senior night.
Is that enough sports for ya? This is only one week's worth, which means they'll be more this week, and the next, and.......

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Don't look now, but..........

What in the name of Red Grange is going on? After a successful run to the Rose Bowl in 2007, the Fighting Illini football team finds themselves on the outside looking in at the bowl picture just one year later. The latest setback, a 23-17 loss to Western Michigan at spacious Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. If ever there was a trap game, this one was it. Playing out of conference so late in the season, and for that matter, out of their element as well, the Illini made the trip up to Detroit to take on the Broncos, who came into the game at 7-2. After the Illini had beaten Iowa the week before on a field goal by Matt Eller with just 24 seconds remaining, momentum was on their side. Or, was it? Picture this if you will. Ford Field seats 65, 000 fans, but the announced attendance was just under 13,ooo. Now, I'm no mathematician, but that doesn't compute to me. To add insult to injury, no local markets picked up the game on television, so fans had to resort to either listening to Brian Barnhart and Kurt Kittner call the action on the Illini Sports Network (not a bad option, by the way), or get to a local watering hole that actually ponied up the money to get the telecast (there weren't many). The only other option was to find a computer that somehow got ESPN360, where the game was streamed online. Not that the fans missed much by not seeing this one. Before a crowd that wouldn't fill the Assembly Hall, the Illini were outplayed for much of the game. Sure, the Illini took an early lead as they often do, but then they watched the Broncos reel off 17 unanswered points to trail 20-7 at the half. Juice Williams was able to throw for over 300 yards once again, and his favorite target, Arrelious Benn, once again eclipsed the century mark in receiving yards. But this team needs to be about more than just Juice and Regus, as they are affectionately known to fans and media alike. They simply are not getting the job done, and losing to a MAC team at a neutral site is about the tip of the iceberg in terms of frustration. Ron Zook always manages to try to explain what went wrong, and vows that they will get whatever it is wrong fixed, but as the season nears its end, the Illini and the coaching staff are still looking for answers. Is it really asking too much for the Illini to put together back-to-back solid games, that end up in the win column? I guess this kind of all started with the opening game back in late August in St. Louis, as the defense allowed Missouri to run and pass them ragged, en route to a 52-42 loss. The Illini did win two in a row early on in the season, but they barely beat Louisiana-Lafayette, and didn't play that well in the game. Winning at Michigan was a start, but Michigan is way down this year and Indiana, who the Illini also beat, is even worse than that. Left on the schedule this season are two games that could go either way. Ohio State comes to Memorial Stadium this Saturday (11:00 am CST, ESPN), and then the Illini travel to Evanston to face in-state rival Northwestern the following Saturday. Currently sitting at 5-5 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten, the Illini know what they need to do to secure a bowl berth. They need to win out, because a split would put them at 6-6, which would be bowl eligible, but not necessarily a given. Ohio State is beatable, but they are still playing for plenty themselves and have fared rather well in Champaign the last few visite, winning the last 6. Northwestern is streaky, and can either light it up on oppenents, or hiccup and let one get away. The Buckeyes have one of the best young quarterbacks in the country in Terrelle Pryor, and this ought to be fun watching Juice and Terrelle go at it. Also, a split in these last two games could very well send the Illini right back to Detroit for bowl season, as the Big Ten has a tie-in to the Motor City Bowl, slated for the day after Christmas at Ford Field. The MAC also ties into that bowl, so you could very well see the Illini matching up against either Ball State, Central Michigan, or Western Michigan again. But, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Coaches don't look ahead past opponents, and neither should I. The Buckeyes are the focus this week, and the Illini need to worry about beating them first before any talk of the Wildcats hit the floor.
It's not that Zook isn't getting talent to come to Illinois. With the likes of Juice, Regus, Vontae Davis, Martez Wilson, and others, he has proven that he is a dynamic recruiter. Zook was fired at Florida 5 years ago because he wasn't meeting expectations for whatever reason. Some here in Champaign have begun to see that maybe his in-game coaching could have been the reason for his seperation from Gainesville, because his successor down there, Urban Meyer, seems to be doing fairly well. We are seeing the last of the Ron Turner recruits exit out of the program, and Zook has some more recruits ready to come in next season as well. Guys like WR Kraig Appleton of East St. Louis, DE Craig Drummond of Chicago, and QB Nathan Scheelhaase of Kansas City, Missouri headline another nationally ranked class for Zook. Add Florida transfer Jarrod Fayson to the mix, and things should continue to look up for the Illini. There should be ample cause for these freshmen to step right in and play, because Zook has shown that he is not afraid to play freshmen. Now, they need to get over the hump and secure that second straight bowl appearance, something that has not happened in Champaign-Urbana for quite a while. Is that too much to ask?
When previewing the Illini women's basketball team for 2008-09, a lot of space isn't necessary. It's not because of the coverage that the program has received over the past few years, but due primarily to the fact that there are only 9 scholarship players on the team. Coach Jolette Law, who is already making positive strides to reverse the program's direction previous bench boss Theresa Grentz sent it, came within one second of defeating Purdue in last year's Big Ten Tournament title game, which would have sent the Illini to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in quite a while. The two seniors on the team, Chelsea Gordon and Lacey Simpson, will be asked to assume leadership of a team that will have 6 newcomers out of the 9 players. Jenna Smith, the only other player that has experience at the Big Ten level, is a junior and is shaping her game to have a monster season. Law brought in Whitney Toone, a junior college transfer out of Brooklyn, New York to play forward, and add redshirt freshman Lydia McCully as a sharpshooting guard. Four other freshmen dot the roster, and will be asked to help out almost immediately. Macie Blinn, from Greenville, Ohio will play guard, as will Fabiola Josil (Coral Springs, Florida) and Eboni Mitchell (Decatur, Georgia). Joining them will be 6'3 forward Lana Rukavina, from Wheeling, Illinois. Out of the nine players, seven hail from out of the state of Illinois. Coach Law has vowed to recruit the state from top to bottom to find the best players to bring to Illinois, but is also not afraid to bring in players outside the state's borders. On Wednesday, both the mens and women's teams will finally be able to sign their recruits for the 2009 seasonat National Letter of Intent signing day. Law will be bringing in 5 new players that day, and men's coach Bruce Weber will be getting 4. I'll have complete coverage of the new players and how they expect to fit into the respective mixes later in the week. Stay tuned for that.